Skip to comments.Darwin and Malthus
Posted on 09/29/2005 2:21:03 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
The year was 1838. In England, the Industrial Revolution was under way, but it had made rich only the owners of production, not the workers. In increasingly crowded cities, ordinary people struggled for their daily existence. Some of the poor rioted. The Poor Laws were under attack: Welfare to the needy would only increase their dependence and encourage the breeding of still more hungry mouths to feed, said critics. It was in this pivotal year that Darwin, back from his voyage on the Beagle and trying to understand the forces that drove the origin of new species, read the works of Thomas Malthus, a parson and social economist.
In opposition to the utopian thinkers of the day, Malthus believed that unless people exercised restraint in the number of children they had, the inevitable shortfall of food in the face of spiraling population growth would doom mankind to a ceaseless struggle for existence. Out of that unforgiving battle, some would survive and many would not, as famine, disease, and war put a ceiling on the growth in population.
These ideas galvanized Darwin's thinking about the struggles for survival in the wild, where restraint is unknown. Before reading Malthus, Darwin had thought that living things reproduced just enough individuals to keep populations stable. But now he came to realize that, as in human society, populations bred beyond their means, leaving survivors and losers in the effort to exist.
Immediately, Darwin saw that the variation he had observed in wild populations would produce some individuals that were slightly better equipped to thrive and reproduce under the particular conditions at the time. Those individuals would tend to leave more offspring than their fellows, and over many generations their traits would come to dominate the population. "The result of this would be the formation of new species," he wrote later. "Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work."
That theory, of course, was none other than natural selection, the driving force of evolution. Though scholars have debated just how influential Malthus was in Darwin's thinking, there can be no doubt that his view of the struggle in society enabled Darwin to appreciate the significance of the struggle in the wild.
"Welfare to the needy would only increase their dependence and encourage the breeding of still more hungry mouths to feed, said critics."
167 years later, nothing has changed
Malthus held technology constant, which is silly. Subject to his assumptions, Malthus was correct, but his assumptions were flawed. Though, with what we knew of economics at the time, Malthus was cutting edge.
His name has become so closely associated with the zero-population growth fanatics, that it's too often forgotten that Malthus was one of the first economists to powerfully criticize the welfare state and to foresee the cycle of economic dependence which resulted from it.
there is a hard ceiling to food production, though Malthus (in ignorance of future technologies) greatly underestimated it.
We have not reached it, yet.
doesn't mean we won't. If/When we do, Malthus' nighmare scenario will come to pass.
What, are you a slow reader or something?
Kind of like associating Christians with Jim Jones.
What's wrong? Only you evolusheviks can post your religious debates in the News section, but Christians should be confined to the religion forum? You really don't like hearing any opposition to your dogmatic faith, do you?
Indeed. The great insight that Malthus had was that populations either check themselves, or the environment does it for them. For this we are apparently supposed to revile him, along with Darwin, and if the original poster's second link is to be believed, along with Edmund Burke. I'm not sure what we're to make of this when that same page says that Marxists rejected Malthus - apparently, here on the New Free Republic, Darwin and Edmund Burke are bad, because they were influenced by Malthus, and Marx is good because he rejected Malthus. And this is somehow "conservative". What a mess.
evolusheviks ? Name calling again?
Social Darwinism had a pretty good run, but it was over in America early in the 20th century.
This is activism, pal.
True, but there are still a few fans here and there. Elvis sightings, Saddam sightings, Enron sightings.
In 1871, after others had publicly drawn out the implications of evolutionary theory for human beings, Darwin published his Descent of Man. If we just read the Origin we can believe the standard story. If we read the Descent, it is all too clear that Darwin reconceived ethics on the basis of survival of the fittest, and that the unfit individuals and races were evolutionary dross and should be left behind for the good and purity of the human species. The Descent is full of the most startling eugenic and racist quotes, softened at times by Darwins illogical appeal to sympathy. ...From the first appearance in German of Darwins Origin of Species, the intellectual elite understood quite clearly the eugenic and racial implications. ...Darwinism as applied to the moral sphere was a movement not of brown-shirt thugs, but of the intellectual upper classthe top medical doctors, chemists, economists, botanists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, ethnologists, jurists, and even geographers in Germanys best universities. The call for eugenic elimination of the unfit and for war as a means of evolutionary purification did not ring from the beer halls but from the halls of academe.
And so, against the standard story, in which ignorant Nazi eugenicists and racists had illicitly borrowed from Darwin,...Nazi barbarism was motivated by an ethic that prided itself on being scientific. Given the acceptance of evolution as an established fact in biology, the German intelligentsia drew the logical consequences: a new ethic, with a new definition of good and evil.
The evolutionary process became the arbiter of all morality. Whatever promoted the evolutionary progress of humanity was deemed good, and whatever hindered biological improvement was considered morally bad. Multitudes must perish in this Malthusian struggle anyway, they reasoned, so why not improve humanity by speeding up the destruction of the disabled and the inferior races? According to this logic, the extermination of individuals and races deemed inferior and unfit was not only morally justified, but indeed, morally praiseworthy. Thus Hitlerand many other Germansperpetuated one of the most evil programs the world has every witnessed under the delusion that Darwinism could help us discover how to make the world better. - LINK
just gonna watch
Malthus warned against shortages of food at just the exact time when the industrial revolution was paving the way for an undreamed of increase in the ability to produce it.
I am not at all sure that the premise of this article that the industrial revolution by 1838 had made only the capitalists rich. There was clearly a displacement of labor, and the creation for the first time of an urban, as opposed to a rural, underclass, but many people moved to the cities because they thought it would improve their lot in life. I think we tend to exaggerate the benefits of rural living.
Finally, there is evidence all over the world that industrial populations tend to self-limit. The consequences of underpopulation [expressed in the aging of populations] threatens to be as big a problem as overpopulation.
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